Archive for March, 2010

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Will We Let This School Fail?

March 10, 2010

Rarely a day passes without hearing from one of my friends in the Jewish world about a new project in which they have become engaged or an organization for which they are fundraising.  The conversation that ensues is often one about shared interests and common concerns. Sometimes the conversations result in my renewed optimism and other times they cause me to have sobering realizations; but never have they made me sick to my stomach.

Until last week.

An unexpected call from a former colleague who  left Atlanta to move to Asheville, North Carolina started out with the usual pleasantries – work, family, memories of old times. But quickly the conversation turned to the matter that was obviously on my friend’s mind – the state of affairs of the nascent community Jewish Day School in Asheville where his children attend and of which he is president. His story started out inspiring enough, nineteen families had come together in 2006 to create a fully integrated core/Jewish curriculum day school for their twenty-one children, with plans to increase the school size by the incremental addition of students and grades. In the middle of North Carolina, where so much of the Jewish community had migrated away from to lager population centers like Charlotte and Atlanta, the small but resilient Jewish community of Asheville was not going to yield to demography. Grounded in a community with religious diversity and a small but strong JCC, the school would be an extension of the Jewish community’s efforts to create a rich Jewish experience for their children. At least that was the intention.

Now, like every school (and other community organization) in the country that is facing the hardships of the Great Recession, the Maccabi Academy of Asheville is in financial crisis. Its $40,0000 deficit is too big, its community is too small; it is literally on the edge of going from a school that could be much more to a school that might be nothing more than a memory. It made growth decisions that anticipated financial security and now must revisit those decision with deep cost-cutting measures.  It must ask more from each family, and has already received more than most families can afford.   Looking beyond its small community it has reached out to friends throughout the Southeast that might have connections to Asheville or North Carolina in the hope they might find an angel or an unexpected benefactor from afar. But one decision my friend, his board, and his fellow parents are loathe to consider, but nonetheless must – without the needed funds, will it be possible to continue this Jewish day school experience for those nineteen families?

As a Jewish people we say that education is one of the most important elements of sustaining ourselves. As a North American community we insist that day school education is one of the most critical means to provide our children an immersive educational and communal experience (often at the expense of investing too little in congregational education). We encourage families to send their children to day schools; we cajole parents to give more of their resources to make those schools strong. We know that education is expensive and we say to one another that we face an affordability crisis that threatens our ability to provide the education we know is needed. Yet say every child matters, so we mustn’t fail in providing that education, no matter the cost. We say all of these things.

There are nineteen Jewish children in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the Jewish centers of life in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. These children are getting a daily dose of Jewish education, culture and language, and they are sharing experiences that will help cement their identities for years to come.  They may go elsewhere in life, far from Asheville – perhaps even to our own communities. We know this.

So with all we know, let me ask this – will we, the Jewish people, let this school fail?  And if we do, what does it mean about what we say?

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August (1929) and Everything After: The Jewish Agency at the Crossroads of History

March 1, 2010

The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life. –  excerpt from “A Call to the Educated Jew” by Louis Brandeis

 

History teaches everything, including the future.   – Alphonese de Lamartine

 

 

What was it like to be part of the leadership the Jewish Agency in August, 1929 in Zurich?  Less than a month earlier, the 16th Zionist Congress established an expanded Jewish Agency after a seven year long debate about how Zionist efforts would incorporate a wide array of Jewish groups in the Diaspora, and the meetings that August were the first gathering of the expanded organization. Around the table were giants of the Jewish people, including Chaim Weizmann, Louis Marshall, Joseph Sprinzak and others representing both the WZO and Diaspora Jewry and who were invested in the efforts to create a Jewish state. As they planned their joint endeavor toward the realization the “establishment of the Jewish National Home… in Palestine” (as called for by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922), this group had the daunting task of prioritizing the initial work of the Agency. Their deliberations resulted in the emphasis on immigration, settlement and land purchase as key endeavors, with efforts also to be undertaken regarding the greater establishment of language and culture of the new nation. Decisions were made and the rest, as they say, is history.

But again, I wonder, what was it like to sit at that table and make those decisions?

This question weighed on my mind as I attended the meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency last week in Jerusalem. Now, like then, the Jewish Agency is at a pivot moment in Jewish history – a moment where, at the end of many years of debate, priorities must be set and decisions must be made. What direction will this historic organization take at this crossroads in the history of the Jewish state and the Jewish people?  Yes, there certainly are differences between then and now – then the very existence of the State of Israel was an aspiration, now it is a reality. Then only a small fraction of world Jewry lived in the land that would become the modern state of Israel, now half the world’s Jewish population calls Israel home. But many of the challenges are the same – how can the Jewish Agency best help make sure that Israel is more than a state, but also a people? How can the organization best ensure that the future of the Jewish nation is secured and enriched by the reinforcement of the national characteristics of the Jewish people?

Those challenges and others face the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 and, like 1929, both the weight of history and the promise of the future cannot be ignored. Then, like now, the Zionist dream was the shared dream of many diverse stakeholders, often sharing common cause but possessing diverse perspectives about how to pursue that cause.  We know the history since 1929, but what we don’t know is this: Like those individuals around the table in 1929 that came together to prioritize approaches to ensuring the creation and sustainability of a Jewish nation, can today’s diverse leadership of the Jewish Agency define its priorities to properly ensure the strengthening and sustainability of the Jewish people?

The answer must be ‘yes’ – history, and the Jewish future, demand nothing less.

In his book Community and Polity, Professor Daniel Elazar postulated that in the postmodern Jewish world there needs to be reassertion of Jewish polity – a transition from fragmentation to reintegration. More than ever before, the Jewish Agency can and should play a substantial role in developing that greater sense of Klal Yisrael, integrating the fragments of Jewish life into a shared sense of identity. While its role since 1929 has been reconstituting a Jewish state, the Jewish Agency must now transition to a role of reconnecting a Jewish people. Yes, there can be no question that Israel is and must remain a center of the Jewish people, but a center unconnected from its broader sphere becomes the center of nothing.  And just like the efforts of the Jewish Agency have long been to weave the multicolored threads of olim into the fabric of the Jewish State, the Agency must continue to serve as a seamstress in the next phase of Jewish history. But rather than only help bring the threads together as the cloth of a nation, it must now serve a new role in stitching together the quilt of Jewish people, sewing together the unique squares of Jewish life and experience that occur in Israel, North America and throughout the Jewish world.  To do so, it must use the expression of individual Jewish identity as the thread that binds the quilt of the Jewish people together.

Of course any prioritization, any design of its future endeavors, must take into account that the Jewish Agency cannot in the abandon some of its key responsibilities in that it is uniquely able to address. But as time changes, and the needs of the Jewish people change, the Jewish Agency cannot remain static. It too must change, and change in the ways the future demands, not the past. Certainly the coming weeks and months will require hard questions to be asked and certain answers to be accepted. But we should not lose site of one question that will be asked, we hope will be asked, one day far in the future –

What was it like to be part of the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 in Jerusalem and what did they decide?

The history books of the Jewish people are waiting for the answer.